Washington Capitals Coaching Change Firmly Shifts Responsibility To Players

ARLINGTON, VA - NOVEMBER 28: Washington Capitals head coach Dale Hunter speaks with members of the Washington Capitals during practice at Kettler Iceplex on November 28, 2011 in Arlington, Virginia. Hunter became the head coach after Bruce Boudreau was recently fired. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

Bruce Boudreau is out, Dale Hunter is in, but what happens if the Washington Capitals keep struggling from here on out? It's now clear that the burden has shifted.

Let's all agree on one thing when it comes to the firing of Washington Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau: It wasn't all his fault.

Sure, maybe Boudreau "lost his team" after four seasons at the helm in the Nation's Capital. Maybe, after three straight seasons of ridiculous regular season success and absolutely nothing to show for it in the playoffs, the team tuned him out and convinced themselves they would never get the job done under his direction.

In firing Boudreau Monday, general manager George McPhee essentially said that was the problem. Via Adam Vingan at SB Nation DC:

"The reason for the change was we weren't winning," McPhee said to an assembly of reporters at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. "This wasn't a slump. You can ride out slumps. This was simply a case of the players were no longer responding to Bruce. When you see that...you have to make a change."

"I didn't like some of the things that I saw in training camp and some of the preseason games," McPhee said. "I don't want to put too much into that, but I was worried then. Then, we had a great start and then we started to slip up. You have an injury here or there that you think is part of it, but ultimately, we have too many players that aren't playing well and that's what it comes down to. They can play better. You have to find out how to make them play better and we think this is the solution."

Boudreau couldn't motivate his players to play up to their potential any longer, and that's just as simple as it gets. Coaches have a shelf life in the NHL -- only four have been with their teams since the lockout and nine are new in 2011 -- and you hit a certain point where players stop listening. Lindy Ruff in Buffalo and Barry Trotz in Nashville are definitely the exception, not the rule.

Boudreau was the most successful coach in the history of the Washington Capitals, but no matter his ridiculously good track record, this was the best move for the team right now. It's kind of hard to argue otherwise. The cliche has been said a thousand times, but it's 120 percent true: You can fire the coach, but you can't fire the players.

So yes, Bruce Boudreau was a scapegoat. But what else was McPhee supposed to do? He's assembled a highly talented roster, and it's the job of the coach to manage that roster into something that wins hockey games. Yes, Boudreau did that for much of his tenure, and yes, there was definitely some bad luck contributing to the way the Capitals played in the first 20 or so games of this season.

Via our resident statheads at Arctic Ice Hockey:

Of course, Washington's 5-on-5 save percentage is 29th in the league (they finished 8th and 2nd the last two seasons), so when a GM sees short-term luck-driven fluctuations like that, he has no choice to fire his coach.

And, of course, save percentage lows like this don't last long, so when Tomas Vokoun's save percentage rebounds to career norms as we expect it to, Washington will start winning a lot and firing the coach will look like a genius move. If you're trying to score genius points with the press, then by all means fire the coach and watch your team regress upwards...But if the focus is long-term winning, firing a coach mid-season makes no sense.

But it's not about anything on the ice that's really the problem here. The Capitals have won hockey games this year, and if they kept Boudreau around, they'd continue to win hockey games at some point this season. There's too much talent there for the team to completely fall apart over the remainder of the season, and like it says there, certain trends in luck just don't continue all that long without some correction.

With or without Boudreau, this team will win more hockey games this year. They'll probably make the playoffs either way, and they'll probably even win the Southeast Division again without much of a problem. But it's not really about that. It's not even about winning once the playoffs come, because there's so much luck involved in that (see: Bruins, Boston AND Game 7 Victories) that it's tough to make a decision solely based on a few unsuccessful playoff runs.

It's really about things that can't be quantified. It's about delivering a wake-up call to the players on the team who clearly haven't been giving it their full effort. We can't put a number on effort, no matter how hard we try, and it's easy to say "Oh, well they're professional athletes, of course they're giving it 100 percent." But that's just not always true.

Back to McPhee, via SB Nation DC:

"You don't want to make these decisions, but when you see what I saw, you have to make the decision," McPhee continued. "You can't look the other way. I've seen it in a few games recently, enough that I knew the team wasn't responding. We've got their attention now and hopefully they'll respond in the right way."

Without the response from the players, those trends in luck probably aren't going to turn around. That's how talented teams that should absolutely win a lot of hockey games wind up doing the opposite, and ultimately, that's why coaching changes are made. That's why Bruce Boudreau doesn't have a job anymore.

Star-divide

The coaching change also shifts the burden in Washington. Yesterday morning, when Bruce Boudreau drove to the Kettler Capitals' Iceplex to head to work for the final time, his mind was likely on how he could get his team to respond to what he had been trying to do lately. How he could get his team back on the right footing.

When he left the building without a job, that burden did not shift to his replacement, Dale Hunter.

Hunter is the fresh new face around the Caps, and with that lacks the accountability of the failures that have occurred in recent years. The change has been made at that position, even if it may have been unfair to Boudreau, but as George McPhee said, it was made to get the attention of the players.

Now, the burden of responsibility falls on the men on the ice, not the man behind the bench. If the players don't respond to a new coach -- one with a much more intense style than that of his predecessor -- then it's pretty easy to see where the problems lie here.

Players will be the next to go in Washington. Or maybe it'll be the general manager, who reigns over the whole thing and doesn't have control over the on-ice performance of players, but certainly does have control over the players he acquires to place into a particular coaches' system.

It also helps that Dale Hunter is a beloved icon in Washington. His number hangs from the rafters and as he walked away from his press conference yesterday, you could actually hear people asking for his autograph. People absolutely love Dale Hunter. Couple that with the fact that he's the fresh face and it's a lot easier to see a team blown up before another coach is made a scapegoat in Washington.

Of course, I guess that all depends on the Capitals continuing to lose games, and no matter what, that's probably not going to happen for much longer.

Star-divide

Morning Skate is a daily NHL column. It runs Monday through Friday. Check the archives.

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